Critical and biographical information on Henry Reed, World War II British poet, critic, translator, and radio dramatist — author of "Naming of Parts"
Henry Reed, poet and radio dramatist
The Poetry of Henry Reed Homepage
Symons, Julian. "Lost Felicity." Times (London) Literary Supplement, 22 November 1991, 7.

Lost felicity


The poem by Henry Reed known to anybody who reads verse is "Naming of Parts", a wonderfully skilful piece that is more effective because its irony is so deliberately subdued. The poem, published in 1942, is superficially about the lack of equipment for Army conscripts at the time, but its five verses also suggest through their unemphatic verbal wit a contrast between the destructive power of man's weaponry and the burgeoning beauty of nature. The jacket blurb of Reed's Collected Poems is not guilty of overstatement in saying this is "probably the most anthologized English poem of the Second World War". It is also without doubt the wittiest.

What else of value did Henry Reed the poet give us, distinct from the much better-known Henry Reed the radio dramatist? Jon Stallworthy has gathered together the poems from A Map of Verona, published in 1946, and the five poems in Lessons of the War, which appeared in a limited edition in 1970,and he has added to them uncollected and early poems, plus songs and verses from the radio plays. He has written a preface, partly critical but chiefly biographical, which shows how much Reed's writing was affected by the homosexuality of which he was not at the time able to make public acknowledgement. He was born in 1914, the son of a master bricklayer in Birmingham, "a serious drinker and womanizer", and a mother who was illiterate but a great teller of fairy stories to her daughter and son. Reed emerged from what cannot have been an easy childhood, through grammar school to Birmingham University, where he took a first-class degree. An interest in classical history, mythology and poetry was made permanent when his father, rather generously it seems, financed a trip to Italy. There he lived with a family in Naples, liked the city — which he later celebrated in a radio play — and was enchanted by Verona.

In 1941, Reed was conscripted into the Ordnance Corps, but spent most of the war at the Bletchley Code and Cypher School. There he met a writer five years his junior, and their relationship became what is called here, it seems over-cautiously, "perhaps his most important friendship". At the end of the war, the two lived together, parted, were reunited for a year during which Reed worked on a never completed biography of Hardy, and separated finally in 1950. Reed eventually gave up the Hardy project, which had haunted him for years. Thereafter he lived in London, with occasional visits to Europe and stints as a visiting professor in the United States, presumably had casual love-affairs, drank too much, became reclusive, in 1986 died.

Reed had won a New Statesman competition in 1941, with "Chard Whitlow", a parody of Eliot in his Four Quartets mode, and Eliot's influence hangs heavily over several poems in A Map of Verona:

The doorway open, either in the soft green weather,
The gulls seen over the purple-threaded sea, the cliffs,
Or open in mist,
The gulls heard over and under you in the greyness
This time or that, but always the doorway open,
And through the broken stones the forbidden courtyard

The rhythms, the language and the setting are all in debt to the master. When Reed's own characteristic voice is heard in the book, it has two tones, ironic and lyrical. The ironic tone is heard in "Naming of Parts", its four almost equally good successors dealing with the trainings of soldiers, and the longer "Psychological Warfare", printed here for the first time, from a typed draft with written amendments. The savagery behind this group of poems comes through clearly from the surface of back-slapping mock geniality. The lyrical tone, though, is prevalent. Stallworthy says Reed never ceased looking for the Great Good Place, but it was really for a Lost Good Place, and a lost love that he knew would never be found again. "Three Words" plays throughout with the words silent, suddenly, forever, and ends by linking them in such lines as "I have once suddenly known I had lost you forever". In "The Town Itself", the loved Verona, revisited, is seen as an unattainable lover. "The Blissful Land", probably the result of the same visit to Italy, rejects him, and the rejection links the poet with a lost or discarded lover as the "other forces of the blissful land" condemn him:

At last their chosen spokesman, at a common signal,
That it should speak for the whole of that winter concourse
In its rigid courtroom of damnation and grinning stone,
An icy wind slowly approached me, paused, searched my face,
And screamed in rancour, contempt, and disappointment:
"It was not you that we wanted! How dared you to come here alone?"

Sometimes, as in "The Interval", which retells Odysseus' wanderings, the poet uses the myth to look at his own isolation, and in "The River" gazes across the Styx "to where you stand... discerning never the scores of ardent eyes / That are turned toward you". A strange poem called "The Intruder", taken from two incomplete written drafts, offers as symbol of thwarted love "the spectre of one who seemed / seeking and seeking and seeking / Something I dared not say".

These poems, all uncollected and some previously unprinted, are Reed's principal achievement. They have an emotional force rarely present in the earlier work, and the poet almost always finds an adequate form for the expression of his lost felicity by a technique of indirection that keeps sentiment under firm control. The songs and poems from the radio plays, especially those from Moby Dick, are effectively dramatic. A taste for drama, indeed, turns one or two poems like the ambitious "The Auction Sale" into something like an updated version of a humdrum poet like Wilfrid Gibson, yet even these less successful pieces show Reed's fine ear. He seems to have had few contacts as a young man with the poetic contemporaries whose approach he might have found sympathetic. Like two of them, Kenneth Allott and Bernard Spencer, he wrote less than he might or should have done, but Henry Reed's talent, like theirs, was wholly genuine, the product of that unusual combination, a good mind, a sharp intelligence, and a delicate sensibility.




Page last modified: 01 October 2016